VIENNA, Va. — Friday’s bill featuring two of the ’70s premier soul acts — The O’Jays and Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly — nearly didn’t happen. Some strong storms rolled through the region a couple hours before showtime, threatening to put a kibosh on the event at the beautiful Wolf Trap Filene Center
Thankfully, the rain held up and the show commenced on time, with a slight breeze helping to ease the triple-digit temperatures that ruled earlier in the day. What developed was a flat-out, old-school battle of the bands.
The O’Jays serving as opening act, and the trio of Eddie Levert, Walter Williams Sr. and Eric Nolan Grant were up for the task at hand, nearly stealing the show in their cool, baby-blue tuxedos and sounding and acting with their expected professional class depicting their — count ’em — seven-decade career.
Fortunately, all three members showed up for the D.C.-area gig, considering just two months ago, the group played a Pittsburgh venue minus Williams, who was under the weather. It’s always been a treat to witness The O’Jays’ unique dance moves, and Williams, like always, played it cool with a choreographic style that still reflects who he calls the “old man,” late hoofer and Motown legend Cholly Atkins.
During a medley of past hits, “Use ta Be My Girl” garnered the highest crowd response, while “You Got Your Hooks in Me,” was a surprise add to the playlist. Walt shined on “Cry Together” and the gospel-flavored “Stairway to Heaven.”
Eddie, as always, was the main man throughout the evening with his humorous comments and funky dance moves. Levert has never taken himself too seriously with his fans, and was this way again. Despite the loss of his two sons within two years of each other about a decade ago, he remains very humble and light-hearted onstage.
They ended the 90-minute set with “For the Love of Money,” penned by famed songwriting duo Gamble and Huff and bassist Anthony Jackson.
After a brief 30-minute intermission, the stage was set for the headliners, and the raspy-voiced Beverly aka “silky soul singer” was in rare form, considering his recent bout with throat cancer.
During an Atlanta New Year’s Eve show in 2009, it appeared as if his career was in jeopardy, but Friday’s show was evidence that Beverly is indeed “back in stride.” Though his vocals weakened toward the end of his performance, you have to give the 71-year-old performer his props for a spectacular performance.
In a brief banter with the audience, Beverly addressed the nation’s current racial tensions, adding “I love everybody, no matter what color they are.” His comments evoked memories of the group’s ’77 hit, “Color Blind,” though it was not part of their playlist on this evening.
Guitarist John “Jubu” Smith again shined during “Golden Time of Day.” Smith’s extended, melodically sweet solo has become an expected part of the Maze act, based on his modernistic approach to the lead guitar — very similar in bluesy style-riffs to the legendary BB King. Speaking of guitar, though Frankie’s patented acoustic guitar was displayed on front-center stage, he never picked it up. His funky rhythm guitar riffs were always notable on “You” and “Color Blind.”
Maze’s dedicated fan base obviously missed the late percussionist/vocalist McKinley “Bug” Williams and the funky original bassist Robin Duhe, a cancer survivor and born-again Christian now living in the Oakland-San Francisco area. Ronald “Roame” Lowery, a percussionist, still shares the stage with his Philadelphia homeboy, however.
“Too Many Games,” “Southern Girl” and “Back In Stride” were welcome, though conspicuously missing was “Joy and Pain.” Fans valiantly called for an encore — which would have provided a perfect time for a brief version of “Joy and Pain” — but to no avail.
But nobody complained. Definitely an unforgettable night!